Sermon for Education Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, 27th January 2013
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Luke 4:14-21 – Supererogatory Goods

For over 100 years the churches in England have recognised the ninth Sunday before Easter, which is what today is, as ‘Education Sunday’. It’s a Sunday in which we celebrate the work of all the various educational establishments, and of course in particular, the teaching that comes from our church, either directly here in church, in Bible study or sermons, and in our church schools. Here in Cobham we have St Andrew’s School, who are coming to lead our service at 10 o’clock.

The lessons, that we have set for today, have been chosen with Education Sunday in mind. In Nehemiah and in our gospel reading from St Luke, we have a picture of someone in the synagogue taking down the scroll on which the Hebrew Bible was written, unfurling it and reading from it. Both in the Old Testament lesson from Nehemiah and in the gospel, after the Bible has been read, then there’s a session of teaching.

Indeed on one level, on Education Sunday, we can just celebrate the fact that there are teachers, and that education is a great good. We can reflect that it is a very good thing that the churches are very deeply involved in the whole process of educating children and young people.

Indeed it would be perfectly sensible to have services once a year on Education Sunday that just simply give thanks to God for the fact that God has given all the various talents, all the various complementary skills which St Paul picturesquely describes in our lesson from his first letter to the Corinthians, about the different parts of the body and the fact that each of the bits and each of the body’s faculties – the hand, the foot, the hearing, the sense of smell – have their real purpose in the way in which they relate to each other in the one body. It’s an allegory for the church. The church depends on people with all sorts of different skills and aptitudes and gifts to give. Among those talents there surely is the talent of teaching.

It is, however, worth pausing at this point just to review certain things about the educational landscape as it confronts our children, and ourselves as parents, today. There is some controversy about so-called ‘faith schools’. The argument, the controversy, is whether there should be a stripe running through the whole of a church school, a colour of Christianity. Wouldn’t it be better, some people say, if schools were all completely secular – even so, perhaps children could be taught about religion, or the various religions, as an academic subject, but not as a rule of life. They argue, what about children who come from unbelieving homes, or homes where people actually believe in a different religion?

Obviously there are standard answers to that, given by the church, that in fact there is no undue bias towards churchgoers in allocating places in church schools, that there is always provision made for those who declare themselves to be either unbelievers or believers in a different faith, in the form of separate assemblies or just being able to skip going to Christian worship and attending lessons where Christianity is taught.

Anyway, the churches have a good story to tell about their openness and their inclusiveness in the church schools, and the controversy, if there is really one, is all about the fact that church schools on the whole are very good schools, and obviously more people want their children to attend them than they actually have places for. So although the church has set them up and sustains them in many important ways, non-believers resent this and demand that they should have equal access for their children.

That brings me on to the second dimension in our lessons today, in particular in the gospel. What should a good school teach? I don’t want to get into sterile discussions about the various politicians’ ideas about what the so-called ‘core curriculum’ should contain. I’m more interested today in what Jesus was doing when he was teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth as indeed, according to the gospel, he regularly did, all over the place. Was he doing the sort of job that Ezra and the Levites were doing in the story from Nehemiah?

What Ezra was reading, and then going on to teach about, was ‘the book of the law of Moses’, the Pentateuch, the first five books in the Old Testament. At the heart of the Jewish law are the Ten Commandments. You will remember all the various Ten Commandments, and you could, if you were one of these non-believing parents, point out that, in a school today, you could certainly teach, in a General Studies lesson, say, the benefits to society as a whole if everyone followed the Ten Commandments.

You would say, as an unbeliever, that the benefits of most of the Ten Commandments would inure, quite irrespective of whether they were the commandments of God as opposed to being just good common sense, necessary for peace and harmony in society.

Obviously the first commandment, ‘Thou shalt worship The Lord thy God,’ doesn’t fit with that; and moreover, if you introduce the Ten Commandments with the story of how Moses came by them, it’s quite clear that the particular context of the Ten Commandments is a context of divine revelation, but it is possible to get most of the moral benefits without needing to know anything about God.

But there are little hints of what’s different, when the teaching is actually about the divine. In Nehemiah, there’s this intriguing last thing that Ezra preaches, that people should eat, drink and be merry: but that they should send a share of their food to people who haven’t got any: those ‘for whom nothing is prepared,’ as the passage says. And that that should be something done on the Lord’s day: ‘send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared, because this day is holy to our Lord’. So that suggests that the reason for sending the food parcels to the poor people is because it’s something associated with God: you do it on the Sabbath, on the Lord’s day.

Similarly in St Luke’s gospel Jesus takes as his text the passage from Isaiah chapter 61 which actually describes the coming Messiah, the chosen one of God. Again, the point about that is that Christian teaching is not just about what is good to do – although of course there is strong Christian teaching about it – but at its heart is the question where that teaching comes from, and who Jesus was, in order to do that teaching.

You can see the people of Nazareth resisted stoutly the idea that Jesus was anything special – but that is the difference. A secular set of ethics would come up with something very like the Ten Commandments (albeit minus the first one). Essentially such secular ethics would be based on the so-called ‘golden rule’, do as you would be done by; do to your neighbour, and so on; but where the teaching really comes from God, in the mouth of a prophet like Ezra, and in the mouth of Jesus himself, as in St Luke’s gospel, the difference is that the teaching is not only to do as you would be done by, in the various specifics laid down in the Ten Commandments, but it is also to pursue so-called supererogatory goods, things which go beyond what you are obliged to do. So this is sending food parcels to people who are hungry in the Old Testament, and in Jesus’ teaching, the commandments in the Sermon on the Mount, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile: these are all supererogatory goods, doing more than you strictly have to do in order simply to keep the fabric of society together.

They are the mark of a very special kind of teacher. As Jesus himself says, Isaiah’s prophecy, in Isaiah chapter 61, setting out what the Messiah, the chosen one of God, would look like, now is fulfilled. Jesus is the Messiah. He is the son of God. He is divine.

That brings me back to what we should be doing with church schools. If all we’re doing – and that’s not to belittle it – if all that we’re doing is teach children things that they could learn anywhere, church school or not, then it’s almost as though Jesus had never come. But if on the other hand, the important thing about a church school is that it’s run by people who recognise the difference between what Ezra was doing, what the OT prophets were doing, what Moses was doing when he collected the tablets with the Ten Commandments: who recognise what the difference is between them and Jesus himself, teaching in the synagogue and actually saying that the world has changed, that Isaiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled and the Ten Commandments are no longer the whole story. Jesus’ teaching is a whole big command of love, which enjoins people to do supererogatory goods, doing more than they are asked to do, going the extra mile.

And they are doing that, because it is God who is asking them. Isn’t that just the most important thing that you could possibly teach about, in your church school? I think it is, and I’m sure that Andrew Tulloch, the headmaster, and his teachers, at our church school, are very well aware of that, and they never forget it. Long may it continue.